Tag Archives: Vietnam

Five Months Cycle Touring in SE Asia

A reflection of what we’ve learned and places we’ve loved.

“Can you believe we’re in Bali? Can you believe what we’ve done?” Eric stated more as an exclamation than a question last night popping open a can of Bintang beer.

We were sitting in our current lodging, a small studio apartment complete with our first kitchen in almost five months. We’ve cycled almost 6500 kilometers. For both of us, reaching Bali is both an end to a journey that, frankly, we were not sure we would actually complete or enjoy, and a beginning to the next stage of our travels, New Zealand.

The calm and peacefulness of Bali gives us the time to synthesize the frenzy, fear, and fun of the past four countries and reflect on that experience.

Here is a summary of what we learned and loved in each country.

Malaysia

View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia
View from a temple in Penang, Malaysia

We learned “never trust the bicycle Garmin”, contrary to one of my earliest, naive blog posts. We got the most lost “in our own backyard of Perak, Malaysia, where we throughout we knew the roads. But, we ignored our common sense and let Garmin lead. I know understand Garmin is a computer programmed to direct us to the smallest roads, ox-cart paths, and trails used by Neanderthals 10,000 years ago. Therefore, it’s not conducive to logical route planning.

I loved our tour guide Rickey Lee showing us hidden gems in Penang like riding the vehicular up Penang Hill and eating dim sum with his family before heading north from Malaysia.

Eric loved the Red Garden hawker stall in Penang for dinner.

Thailand

This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.
This cave is found on the southeastern coastal road of Thailand. The views are great and the road is relatively flat.

We learned to check elevations and grades of hill climbs before taking local cyclists’ advice about route planning. When we hear the words, “It’s looks like a great ride but I’ve never actually done it on a touring bike with 50 lbs of gear” we’d better do our research. Two people pushing one bicycle up steep hills in the hot sun miles from water is not my idea of fun.

I loved living like a local for four days in Chaing Mai with a warm showers host and eating a local hangouts, taking a leisurely Sunday ride with a group, and meet locals. I also loved putting our our bicycles on a river boat down the Mekong River.

Eric loved riding the south eastern coastal route because it was fairly flat and lodging was easy to find. Both the smooth ride and access to lodging took of that stress while he learned to cope with the heat and humidity. He also liked learning about WWII and the construction of the Burmese Railroad at Hell’s Pass.

Laos

Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.
Kids everywhere stopped to say saw bai dee.

We learned the “150 meter elevation climb and take a rest” idea for breaking up long hill climbs from fellow cycle tourists Thorsten and Sabine. This concept has helped us successfully tackle many large hill climbs since then. It also introduced early the concept of smaller goals to break the day up into manageable parts and gave us a formula for thinking about how long a ride might take.

I loved the scenery of the mountain pass between Luang Prebang and Vang Vieng where the village children living along the highway would run alongside waving and and shouting “saw bai dee” (hello) everywhere we rode. I also loved the companionship of two other cycle touring couples: Sabine and Thorsten, and Lauren and Matthew.

Eric loved the food in Luang Prebang, a fusion of French and Laos food. We can remember both meals in town because the settings were elegant and the food was prepared and served as well as anything we’d had in Paris. This was a strong contrast to the primitiveness we’d just encountered for several weeks prior.

Vietnam

Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.
Both the coastline and mountains are beautiful in Vietnam.

We learned that Vietnam is a beautiful, cooler (less hot), friendly, easy-to-cycle country and probably one of our favorite countries and could easily return. We saw how welcoming, hard-working and productive a country can be.

I loved, even though it was hard, the 15 hour, 130 km ride between Nha Trang and Dalat with fellow cyclist Manfred. It was one of the most physically and mentally taxing rides I’ve ever done but the feeling of accomplishment, the amazing scenery, and the reward of the delightful city of Dalat at the end made it worthwhile.

Eric loved the easy start of our journey in Vinh with the bell hop at our first hotel taking his afternoon off to show us the city. We were both in awe of the beautiful surrounding 50 kilometers green rice paddies, clean villages, and lovely churches and temples.

Indonesia

View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.
View of Mt. Bromo at sunrise.

We learned about and witnessed the negative consequences of corruption at the lowest levels of society. Payoffs to local “police officers” have been blatant and, from what we can see, damages incentive, development, and progress making cycling very difficult. We also learned to heed other people’s advice when they say the traffic is bad.

I loved everything about Mt. Bromo: the 4WD up the mountain, the hike to the crater, and the 40 km bicycle ride downhill. I also loved visiting the hidden temples and sights around Yogyakarta with a local Warmshowers cyclist, Anto.

Eric loved Mt. Bromo and thoroughly enjoyed the 4WD rice.

Bali

Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.
Garmin found this little gem of a peaceful bungalow down a rocky, dirt path.

We learned that the “find lodging” feature on the Garmin 810 works pretty darn well. This is one place where we started the morning in Java without a real plan and, somehow, ending up in Bali in the late afternoon in a rainstorm. We had a back-up plan but using the Garmin saved my cell phone from rain damage and saved time because we didn’t have to stop and hope for 3G. I’m embarrassed to admit, however, that I’m a slow learner because a fellow cyclist, Dell, had suggested I try the “find lodging” feature over 6 weeks ago.

I love everything so far: the calm and peacefulness, the road conditions, the people, the hellos from the children, the long braids of the school girls (reminds me of a much younger me.)

Eric loves the easy cycling roads. I also think he loves our lodging – an apartment with a kitchen, table, comfortable bed, nice bathroom, a hose for bicycle maintenance, and space to cull through his bags to shed some weight before New Zealand.

The two themes that are common in most of our favorites are the people and the scenery. We have nothing but gratitude for the wonderful people we’ve met so far. And we have nothing but awe for the amazing scenery.

Oh, and one of the nicest parts of this whole experience is that Eric said his very favorite is just being with together with me. Together we have learned that we can enjoy retirement on a bicycle.

Camping in a Bamboo Hut

Our bamboo hut.
Our bamboo hut at the Green Bamboo Lodge.

I’ve always thought it would be fun to sleep in a bamboo hut. By watching shows like Gillian’s Island or the musical South Pacific, a thatched roof hut located next to azure water with waves lapping at my door seemed both relaxing and romantic. So, when the opportunity to book two nights at the Bamboo Green Lodge next  the Dong Nai River bordering the Cat Tien National Park – one a Vietnams’s “must see” sights according to Lonely Planet – seemed like a dream come true.

After cycling yesterday for over 54 kilometers I was hot, tired and just not in the mood to go much further. Just then, we approached a small village with a large sign saying “Cat Tien National Park.” I knew we must be close.

Around the next bend was a beautiful green structure that looked like it could be the reception area for a hotel or guest houses. It looked promising: new and clean. We walked our bikes up the steep entrance (by this time we were too hot and tired to pedal) and asked a man if this was the Bamboo Green Lodge. He said “no” and pointed us across the street to a cart path. I thought I read “pity” in his eyes when he said, “500 meters.” He looked askance and mentioned that we were welcome to come have a drink and/or dinner at his hotel later that evening.

As we cycled down the path it got bumpier and my heart sunk further. We passed roosters caged up ready for cock fights and small huts with men sleeping  in hammocks and trash…lots of trash.

I was just about ready to throw an “on-line” booking to the wind and head back to the newer- looking hotel when we arrived at the end of the path.

“Bamboo Green Lodge,” we asked, mustering up a small amount of enthusiasm. “Yes,” a young man answered with a smile.

We were ushered to a bamboo hut that served as a reception area outfitted with a two steel chairs and a laptop on a table at the side near a man sleeping in a hammock. We were offered a glass of sweet lemon aid, which I downed in one gulp, and completed the usual check-in procedures. (mostly passport and visa information).

Our host led us down the flagstone (and mostly dirt) path, towards our lodging while my  bamboo hut dream was being shattered.

Here’s my MY vision of a bamboo hut: cute bamboo exterior with front porch and comfortable deck chairs for sipping wine and watching the sunset, modern, bright, cheery interior with plenty of outlets for charging an excess of electronics, a high quality latex or pillow-top mattress, with choice of soft or firm pillows, 800 thread count 100% cotton sheets, plush carpet, air-conditioning, granite or marble bathroom with enclosed shower and modern fixtures and sound-proof walls.

Here’s local Vietnamese version of a bamboo hut: the bamboo exterior is also the bamboo interior with gaping holes between the posts, a bamboo bed frame with a 4-inch mat on top, a bamboo shelf that tilts to one side because it falls between the bamboo floor slats, a bamboo window shutter that is propped open with a bamboo pole, and a ceramic tile bath area with a blanket that can be pulled across the opening to serve as a door, an attempt to put mosquito netting 3/4 of the way up the exterior walls except for the wall with the door and the window and mosquito netting covering the flooring minus a few places where the netting has gaping holes.

Obviously, our visions differ – mine is based upon fantasy and theirs is based upon years of experience.

On a more positive note, the owners are very nice. They brought us cold beer and quietly left us to pass the afternoon reading a little and snoring a lot in the conveniently located hammocks outside our hut.

After a good nap, I was able to accept the fact that $20 in Vietnam was not going to buy “glamping”. And, I was able to look around and appreciate what our money did buy.

Napping in a hammock on a hot day is not bad.
Napping in a hammock on a hot day is not bad.

Our bamboo hut is quiet. No trucks honking, no loud music playing, no Vietnamese men clearing their smoker’s throats and spitting big ones at 6:00 am. Our bamboo bed is comfortable and we both slept well. And, the setting along the river is peaceful. The evening was quiet with just enough soft noise to lull us to sleep. The morning was slow to begin and we woke to the gentle chirping and chattering of many  unknown-to-me species of birds. (Makes me almost want to read Audubon but not quite.)

Sunset in front of our hut.
Sunset in front of our hut.

The Bamboo Green Resort may not be Gilligan’s Island, but it is a kind of paradise.